Marieke ten Wolde's blog

Documentary photography, and other things interesting enough to bother you with

Tibet Travel log 12: The great train ride (Lhasa-Golmud)

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train 2
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In 2001 I took the bus from Lhasa to Golmud (Geermu) and then the train to Xining. At that time on some parts of the route there was some early activity plotting the train track from Golmud to Lhasa.

The train went in service in 2006 and finally last April I managed to get on and see for myself. It is not always easy to get train tickets, there are now so many Chinese tourists visiting Lhasa that tickets are sold out long in advance and the fees from the ticket touts and travel agencies went up accordingly. Luckily I was there in April, not really the tourist season yet, so I managed to obtain my ticket.

The train was good, clean, comfortable, on time and the people in my part of the train (hard sleeper) were well-behaved. This might seem a silly remark, but during that bus ride 10 years ago I did not even dare to put my bag on the floor of the bus as it was completely covered with greenish spit, the smell of vomit and the noises that were made were horrible and the sleeper bus was in such a bad condition that the hot water in my flask froze overnight. This train ride was a breeze in comparison.

In the first years the train was operational I saw many nomad families using the train to come to Lhasa. Which was a nice surprise after all the international criticism that the train would only bring more Han Chinese to Lhasa changing Lhasa in just another big Chinese metropolis. Which, to some extend, has also happened.
So when I took the train I had hoped to see some of the Tibetans from Kham and Amdo (the Tibetan area’s in Sichuan and Qinghai) who use the train to visit Lhasa during the winter to fulfill their religious duties by visiting the monasteries and temples in and around Lhasa.

But this time there were hardly any Tibetans on the train, it were mainly Han-Chinese, some tourists from Hong Kong and Taiwan, and a handful of other people including one other western foreigner who used the train.
I knew that Tibetans from Kham and Amdo were restricted in their travel to Lhasa. With those areas facing ongoing protests, the authorities were keeping them away to stop the unrest and self-immolations from spreading to Lhasa. I had noticed the lack of pilgrims in front of the main temple in the Tibetan quarter in Lhasa, but I had put that down to the heavy police presence in that area. I just had not realised the extend of the travel restrictions until I saw who went on that train.

The train ride through the snow-covered landscape with the mountains and lakes, the yak herds and groups of the little antelopes was wonderful. The Han Chinese family and Hong Kong Chinese girl in my compartment were lovely and very interested in Tibet it the Tibetan culture. Still I hope that next time I can enjoy it with some Tibetan fellow travelers as well.

train 1
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train 3
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(All photos in and from the train between Lhasa and Golmud)

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Written by Marieke ten Wolde

December 11, 2012 at 15:38

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